With the poor weather we have seen through the winter and spring, it is likely the stress our 2019 calf crop was born in will have repercussions this fall in the feedyard. Maintaining the health on those higher-risk calves will be a challenge, but not impossible. To meet our health and performance goals for these cattle, it is imperative for cattle feeders to be proactive in anticipating and addressing their calves’ needs.

This process begins before the calves arrive. Since calves will spend essentially all of their time in the pen, this pen should be arranged in a welcoming manner. No, we’re not talking about leaving a mint on the pillow but creating an environment where it is simple for a calf to discover how it can meet its basic needs for food, water and comfort.

The pen surface should be smooth, with holes and ragged surfaces made by the last group of cattle filled and smoothed. Bed the pen, even if it isn’t muddy, to create a nice spot for all the calves to lie down. Extra tanks in the pen filled with water spiked with electrolytes encourage calves to rehydrate soon after arrival. The bunk should have long-stemmed hay in it and licked tubs designed for stressed cattle should be available for calves to find in the pen. This way when calves first walk in the pen, everything they could want is easily accessed and abundantly available.

Calves should rest for at least as many hours as they were trucked prior to being processed after arrival. This gives them time to rehydrate and eat prior to being vaccinated. This is critical, as the immune system requires water for optimum function. To use an analogy, water is the oil that runs the immune system, while energy from feed is the gas that powers the system.

Rested cattle can then be processed. Appropriate timing of this process is key to keeping the calves on track. A good recommendation is to work the calves in the first three days or wait until at least thirty days after arrival. The rationale behind this recommendation comes from an often-observed occurrence where calves processed ten to twenty days after arrival go downhill soon after running through the chute. While we may be tempted to blame the vaccine, often the cause of the problem is the stress of leaving the pen the calves have started to become comfortable in for processing. This action often occurs when we are stepping them up on feed, giving the calves two substantial changes at an important juncture. By moving processing to an earlier or later point, we can avoid extra stress in this critical time period.

When we do process these calves, we will want to go light on the vaccination on the first trip through the chute. Considering that every vaccine saps energy from the calf, we should only utilize vaccines that are completely necessary and will be functional when the calf encounters expected disease challenges. Practically this means we should go easy on using too many gram-negative vaccines, such as pinkeye, Pasteurella, clostridium, etc. In addition, utilize more intranasal vaccinations. Good deworming at this point is also key, as parasites decrease immune function.

The first few days are critical for successfully receiving high-stress calves. We want them comfortable in their pen, rested from their trip and have necessary vaccines on board. Work with your veterinarian and your nutritionist prior to receiving calves this fall to create a program that fits your needs and the needs of the cattle you plan on feeding.

Jake Geis, DVM, works with Sioux Nation Ag in Freeman.

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